I think I finally have to accept that any campaign setting I make will eventually turn into a Frazetta painting.
Barbarians riding on dinosaurs fighting masked sorcerers in ancient skull-decorated towers are just too damn cool!
Yora's site for Sword & Sorcery RPGs
Some people quite regularly complain about Medieval Stasis in fantasy worlds, with swords, armor, and castles that are thousands of years old looking just the same as those made in the present day. Which I guess is fair to some point, but on the other hand, we actually get to see these ancient things only very rarely. Who is actually saying that things thousands of years in the past looked exactly as medieval as in the present?
Something that has been bothering me much more recently is how lots of fantasy worlds seem to portray countries and governments in a very static way. The same peoples living in the same places for many centuries or thousands of years, with borders rarely changing in any meaningful way. Which is not at all how kingdoms and empires progressed historically. As historians like to frequently repeat, the idea of a nation state is a very recent concept. But there is also the old story of “medieval people rarely went more than 30 km from their home in their entire life”. Which again might be fair to some point, since most people were farmers and as such wouldn’t commonly move to a different city for a new job. But when local circumstances made it necessary or desirable to give up the old farm and set up a new one somewhere else, then on many occasions they really would move astonishing distances.
Even though I’m quite a fan of Bronze Age history, the periods that really have been fascinating me the most in recent years are the conquest of the Persian Empires by Greeks in the 4th century BCE and the Migration Period of late Antiquity and the early Middle Ages from the 4th to 6th century CE. Well over 2000 years ago, you had Greek aristocrats being the ruling class in Afghanistan. 600 years later, a group of Scandinavians who were living on the Black Sea went on a campaign that made their sons and grandsons kings in Tunesia after conquering Spain. In 5th century France, warlords from Denmark and Kazakhstan were trying to carve out pieces of the Roman Empire for themselves.
Now it seems unlikely that the entire populations of whole countries suddenly packed up everything and started walking for several thousand miles. With the Greek conquest of the Persian Empire, it was explicitly an army on campaign that was recruiting new additional forces from the local rulers who switched to their side. In the migration period of Europe, migrating groups are estimated to consist of only 10 to 20,000 people each, with the total number of people on the move over several centuries probably being well under a million. The German term of “Peoples Marches” for the period is somewhat misleading in that way. You didn’t have entire populations exchanging the places where they lived. Most of the peasant population would likely have remained the same while it was the warrior elites who claimed rulership over the land which in some cases would change every few decades. But when you want to ask “Where did the Visigoths live?”, you have to include the specific year. And I am pretty sure that over in the East, there were some warlords who did major conquests in both China and Europe during different times of their lives. Which then didn’t hold very long after, but that only shows even more how extremely fluid things were in regards to who rules what places.
Yes, in many ways, the world is much smaller now than it was even just one or two centuries ago. But it was never actually that big to begin with. When creating a history for fantasy worlds, consider that not just kings come and go, but the peoples who inhabit the various countries do as well.
People who’ve been following what I write for some time might know that I often come up with plans for grand ideas but rarely have anything finished to present later. Since I don’t have any money at stake with all this elfgame stuff, that’s fine. And it’s rare that I actually abandon anything I’ve been working on completely. Much of stuff that I create is tinkering with mechanics and concepts and it’s always a learning experience that helps me increase my understanding of the material. And nearly all of it kind of just goes into a drawer where I let it sit for some months or a few years while my attention is on other things, to get pulled out again at some later point to continue tinkering with it. So while it might be pretty early to make any kind of announcement yet for what I am currently working on and nothing might come out of during the next year or so, my current plans for a rules system and campaign setting are actually just a new phase of the same things I’ve been working on for nearly 10 years now. I am constantly getting better at it and feel like I am making great progress, but with increasing experience comes a better understanding of how far away the goal has actually been all along. It’s a bit like fusion power research, I guess.
With a lot of talk, confusion, and general uncertainty about the licensing situation of D&D type games in the last month, plenty of people have come out with the opinion that this is as good a time as there’s ever been to just go through with their ideas of what a perfect game system should look like and make it happen. Though in full self-awareness of how much interest and use such systems might actually see, the old term of fantasy heartbreakers immediately made it back into circulation. It’s not going to be the next Dungeons & Dragons or the next Pathfinder, and most likely not even the next Swords & Wizardry. This is something you do just for the fun of it and maybe to use for your own campaigns, and perhaps, if you’re lucky, it becomes popular enough that some people will take bits and pieces as house rules for their own campaigns. And in this mood and environment, why the hell not? I’ve been collecting quite some house rules myself over the years which I already put together as the Yora Rules, and there’s a number of things in B/X that I would personally have done very differently.
There are actually three connected but separate things that I want to make:
At this stage, these are really more general plans for a playtest than specific plans for a product. These are plans to develop something, which depending on how things work out, could at a later point lead to releasing something.
OSRIC and OSE already set great examples for how you could replicate the structure of AD&D and B/X even with the OGL 1.0a, and with the new Creative Commons license for the SRD 5.1, I feel that all of this is both perfectly within both the letter and spirit of the law.
I started RPGs with D&D 3rd edition just when it came out and later played some Pathfinder for a while. It was fine back then because it was what I knew, but when I became curious about this oldschool roleplaying stuff I spend a while with Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea, as a more accessible way to get into the AD&D mechanic, but since I discovered the Basic/Expert rules eight years ago, I’ve been a huge fan of those rules ever since. That is, at least in general terms. I’ve never been able to actually understand the TSR system for making attack rolls and the saving throw categories seem quite nonsensical for someone who was first introduced to Fortitude, Reflex, and Will. That’s why I always only actually ran Basic Fantasy and Lamentation of the Flame Princess and more recently Old-School Essentials, which all let you make attack rolls like in the d20 system. But I’m also quite a fan of some changes made to the B/X rules by Stars Without Number and its various descendants.
In the big picture, these rules will still be B/X. But with the amount of house rules I already made and some other changes I think would be big improvements to the game, it just seems convenient to do a fully new writeup for everything that I can hand to players and also share publicly. Some of these changes seem quite radical as they throw away a presumed “balance” that Gygax and Moldvay created for different classes. But it’s by now pretty well known that there was no precise fine tuning and diligent play testing for the exact values in the tables, and they just made up numbers that looked right. (If anything does break, it will show up during play tests and can be fixed later.)
While the rules for character advancement, combat, and dungeon exploration in the Basic rules are already pretty nice as a rules light version of D&D, it’s really the Exploration rules that always keep me coming back to this game. I remember when West Marches by Ben Robbins was first making its rounds and it always seemed like a really cool approach to set up a sandbox campaign. I later was greatly inspired by Joseph Manola’s The long haul: time and distance in D&D about approaching adventures as months-long expeditions into the unknown, interrupted by spending months cooped up in winter camp. More recently, I’ve read Gus L’s series on Classic Dungeon Crawls that emphasizes the survival game aspect as being essential to making the exploration of dungeons an engaging mode of play, and the whole time I was thinking “Yes, but what if we apply all of this to the outdoors?!”
I feel the wilderness has always been overshadowed by dungeons and by city adventures, but my own mental images of amazing fantasy worlds are filled with trees and mountains from horizon to horizon. And pondering on the ideas of the three wise men above, I’ve become convinced that there can be absolutely fantastic campaigns in which the wandering around in the wilderness can be the main attraction, rather than just the connecting transition space between different adventure sites. To make such a campaign work, there needs to be a clear campaign structure, as well as a set of easy to use tools for the GM to make it happen.
As campaign structure goes, the concept very much follows the West Marches and the original Basic rules: The game begins with 1st level PCs in a small frontier town that is relatively close to several ruins and caves that are home to various creatures and hiding ancient treasures. At first adventures are relatively short, with the travel to the sites being quick and probably uneventful and dungeons being fairly small, and all the PCs being back in the town after 3 to 5 hours where they get XP for all the treasures they recovered. Dungeons with more dangerous creatures and greater treasures tend to be farther away from the town and descend into greater depth, leading to increasingly longer adventures that eventually won’t be able to be played in a single go.
At this point it becomes strongly encouraged for the players to have more than a single character to deal with scheduling. If players A, B, C, and D go on a longer adventure with characters A(1), B(1), C(1), and D(1), the adventure can’t continue until all four players can come together at the same time with the GM again. If player C can only play every second week (maybe), but players A, B, and D want to play more often, they can go on another adventures with their character A(2), B(2), and D(2), and maybe also take along two other players with their characters E(1) and F(1)? If the campaign is about uncovering the secrets and mysteries of the wilderness instead of the personal stories of individual PCs, this way of playing multiple PCs is perfectly viable and it increased scheduling flexibility immensely. It also makes long healing times and characters working for weeks or months on creating magic items and similar things more viable. Just because one character is out of action for the game doesn’t mean all the other PCs have to sit around and fiddle their thumbs while they are waiting.
The Expert rules recommend that characters should start going on longer journeys deep into the wilderness and away from civilization around 4th level, which I think remains a good guideline. But I also think that this is actually the perfect time for PCs to start establishing their own stronghold. Not as barons ruling over their respective towns and villages (which isn’t really much of a group activity anyway), but to have a new forward base camp for their exploration deeper into the wilderness. It’s a place where they can stash their newly found treasures in their vault (and get XP for said treasures), have a supply depot with food reserves for months, can set up fully stocked shops for armorers and alchemists, and a garrison for the hired mercenaries who guard the vault and stay with the pack animals and supplies while they go down into dungeons to explore. It can also serve as their winter camp when the whether makes campaigning nearly impossible for several months of the year.
This new stronghold not only serves as an alternative for the starting town for launching new adventures deeper into the wilderness, it also functions as a generator for new adventures. Ben Robins recommends that the PCs should be the only adventurers exploring the West Marches, but the players don’t have to be the only people establishing a new outpost on the very edges of civilization. There can also be the keeps of aspiring new barons, mining camps, bandit camps, and of course endless hidden lairs of evil cults. Not to mention monsters like giants and dragons making their homes in the area. All of which could have a problem with the PCs setting up a new base near their own turf. Or potentially become allies to share resources and information, and aid each other in times of attacks.
The critical importance of random encounter in dungeon explorations is well enough known, but the same mechanic can also do an incredible amount of heavy lifting when it comes to the wilderness. Nearly everything that can be encountered in the wilds or on the road is either going somewhere or coming from somewhere. After the encounter has played out, there’s usually an option for the players to either follow the creatures to where they are going, or to follow their trail to where they came from. This is a fantastic opportunity to introduce new sites to the sandbox. People probably have noticed that the numbers of creatures encountered in the wilderness often goes into the dozens, and in the case of some lairs even in the hundreds. These numbers are not for a group of four PCs being suddenly ambushed by an entire army on the march. These are numbers for populating keeps, camps, and lairs. These groups are what you find when you follow the wandering groups of monsters back to their homes. And they don’t have to be hostile. The same reaction rolls for random encounters in dungeons can be used when approaching a stronghold in the wilderness. Which I think has the potential as an amazing tool to create a wilderness area that is a living space where players can discover the unexpected and the GM has fantastic opportunities for very freeform and improvisational play.
As I mentioned, a campaign like this also needs tools. The following are mechanics that I’ve already dabbled with to make running such adventures easier. Some of which overlap with the changes to the basic game mechanics mentioned in the previous section. Most of these are things that the Expert rules already cover, but I feel they are clunky and inconvenient to use. All of it can be done better without dramatically changing the outcomes.
The final piece for my upcoming campaign during which all these ideas for new rules and mechanics will be playtested is the setting. I like the sound of Aumaril, and I checked that it isn’t already used by something else. And it’s different enough from Arduin and Amalur to not seem like a knockoff.
Aumaril is a world dominated by severe weather and many volcanoes. Volcanic activity covers the sky in ash every few decades that can cause brutal winters and ruin harvests, but on some occasions have tipped the climate to a point of causing ice ages that can range from centuries to tens of thousands of years. The world only emerged from four thousand years of winter fairly recently, which destroyed the civilization of the fey, reduced the kingdoms of the giants to barbarism, and diminished the empires of the serpentmen to a shadow of their former greatness. As the ice retreated and forest returned to the northern lands, mortal barbarians migrated from the south to make them their home. In recent generations, these first mortal empires have fallen into chaos and decay, and many people are fleeing deeper into the wilderness to try their luck among the abandoned ruins of the fey and giants, and things much more older than even the ancients.
While civilization is centered around three old empires that have seen much better days, and could be interesting places for adventures in their own right, these are not the actual setting where the planned campaign takes place. The adventures of the PCs cover the vast wilderness of forests and mountains that still cover most of the world and remain largely unexplored, but have many ancient ruins from the previous age and civilizations that have long since disappeared. I am an unashamed fan of the 70s and 80s Sword & Sorcery style that gratuitously blends together traditional medieval fantasy elements with weird and alien environments from science fiction or prehistoric Earth. Mushroom forests, dinosaurs, and giant insects are totally my jam, as are evil sorcerers in giant black towers covered in skulls. Which I think has never been executed better (at least stylistically) than in Morrowind. I’m not leaning as much towards the camp or melodramatic, but I still think this is a really cool aesthetic that can be just as well suited for more down to earth fantasy adventures.
One thing that really excites me about this setting is that it’s being populated by various intelligent creatures that have been created for D&D pretty long times ago, but never really seen much breakout success or prominent appearances. In addition to the very human-like Aumarilians, who are greatly inspired by various cultures from the Hyborean Age and the Elder Scrolls, the other major peoples are chitines, derro, fey’ri, grimlocks, locathah, quaggoths, raptorans, and stone giants. Goliaths seem to have become quite popular in 5th edition, and of course yuan-ti have always been famous.
This part of my great creation probably won’t see any kind of proper release as some kind of book, but I guess I’m probably going to share various bits and pieces about it here as the actual campaign develops.
A mini-campaign in which the PCs are scientists, technicians, and security guards trying to escape from the ruined Black Mesa Research Facility.
Half-Life has had such a big impact on kids my generation and I know that a lot of the people I’ve played RPGs with over the years are also fans of it. But I don’t recall ever hearing anyone anywhere bring up the idea of using the game as the setting for an adventure or campaign. I guess it’s because the only kind of campaign we really had on the radar that wasn’t Fantasyland was either Star Wars or Shadowrun. Playing normal people in the mostly real world was never entertained as even an option.
After a few minutes of thinking about it, I realized that the Year Zero Alien game would be the perfect fit for a short campaign like this. (Unsurprisingly, as all sci-fi and horror themed shooters ever are heavily based on Aliens.) You got the technicians, scientists, and security archetypes for characters, there’s always the same undertones of company management having a good idea what fire they make their staff play with, and the tech level for machinery and personal equipment is pretty much the same.
This is, however, the full extend of my ideas so far. Walls shake, power goes out, nobody knows what’s going on. Try to find a way out of Black Mesa as alien monsters start killing people and later marines arrive to keep anything and anyone from getting out. Conveniently, any time a PC dies, you can always introduce new characters who have been hiding in a locked storeroom that the party is walking by. There is a certain temptation to make it a megadungeon, but when the goal is to find the fastest way to the exit, that’s probably a bad approach. Instead, it could work quite well to have certain bottlenecks where the players have only one or two possible exists from the current area, but they can still roam the current area freely to come up with ways past whatever obstacle is blocking the exit.
I’m actually doing it. I’m making my own version of what I think the Basic/Expert rules should have looked like, with dice rolls that are intuitive and level progressions that are consistent, based on my first experiences with the d20 system. I’m probably not gonna use it, and it’s really just an exercise in tinkering around. I don’t think you would get a lot of interested player for a campaign by a new GM with his personal fantasy heartbreaker, but maybe when I have an established OSE campaign running the players might be interested in a less messy version of the rules which still really do the same thing.
It’s really just all the Yora rules put together. Mostly ideas that come from Stars Without Number, Lamentations of the Flame Princess, and Deep Carbon Observatory. But I also got some original ideas of my own. (Which I’m probably not the first person to come up with.)
Where I think B/X really can be improved is some kind of consistent system for ability checks. Hear noise and detect secret doors are a 1 in 6 roll. Thief skills are a percentage roll. Other actions are suggested to be handled by rolling a d20 under the characters most relevant ability score. It’s all over the place. The solution that I’ve come up with is none of the above.
To make a roll to see if a character succeeds on an action that seems plausible to work but success is not certain and there are meaningful consequences for failure, roll 2d6 against a target number based on the character’s most relevant ability score.
For characters with no modifier for the relevant ability, the target number is 7. (Right in the middle for a 2d6 roll, the most common result, and a chance to succeed of 58%, slightly above half.) This number is modified by the ability modifier.
This system replaces the Strength modifier for opening doors. (2d6 against TN 5 is about the probability of 1-5 on a d6.) If a task seems particularly difficult, you can tell the player to roll with -1 or -2, and the majority will intuitively understand that this means 2d6-1 against the same target number as always. (The target numbers should be on the character sheet, like saving throws.)
The very same system to make rolls can also be used to roll for Thief skills instead of 1d100 roll under. This assumes that Thief skills are things that are simply impossible for anyone who isn’t a thief. Climbing walls too smooth to climb on, moving without making any noise, hiding with nothing to hide behind. These are things you can’t take a shot at and hope to get lucky without the special training of the thief class. (For hearing noises, I would go with letting a thief roll against the target number of either his Wisdom or Thief skill, whichever is lower.